My skill set: A (very) brief overview

It’s very hard to do this without feeling vaguely like I’m rolling up a Dungeons & Dragons character. I know, my geek is showing. But here goes.


I don’t think I need to state further that the past has always fascinated me. I have spent literally half of my life learning about and sharing my knowledge of the past. It is, to me, of vital importance that we understand where we came from.

I have acquired these skills through both formal and informal means. I have completed a BA and an MA, both slanted towards History. I have also read, researched, and explored on my own initiative. Furthermore, as a curator and antiquarian, I place a huge emphasis on physical objects that are connected to the past.

Since I have made my living in the museums and heritage world, my knowledge of History has done me a great service. It is only very recently that I have begun to explore the potential non-academic applications to my historical knowlege. Time will tell.


This, I can fully admit, was a childhood fantasy that, somehow, I managed to pursue into my later years and even get paid for. My good friend Vinay Gupta is very fond of highlighting the hilarious fact that someone who had their beginnings as a ‘sword carnie’ managed to attain a curatorship at the Tower of London taking care of Henry VIII’s armour. And yes, this is pretty much what happened.

I began training in swordplay at 15. Given that, in the Middle Ages, this training would have begun between 12 and 14, I’m not too far off the mark for keeping up with squires from that period (minus, you know, horsemanship and actual combat experience). I was part of a stage combat troupe that did fight shows for the Renaissance Festival circuit around New England (for those not familiar with this peculiarly American phenomenon, imagine an historical re-enactment event combined with an element of interactive theatre and a slightly more… liberal approach to historical accuracy).  Through this I slowly met up with people who were studying and practicing ‘Western Martial Arts’ through the use of the few surviving early European manuals of combat that have survived. This ultimately became my main area of research, and I am proud to be a recognised name amongst a very small number of individuals in the world engaging in this field.

It is more than just a martial art for me. It is, in the Eastern sense, a ‘Way’. I have applied swordplay and the study of arms/war into a greater philosophy, much as many previous strategists and masters-of-arms have done before me. It has taught me the importance of observation and appropriate reaction.


As I mentioned above, I started off as a performer. I have always loved to sing and have enjoyed being on stage and in front of an audience. I have been performing since I was about 5 and, although I don’t ‘tread the boards’ nowadays as often as I once did, it is something that has never fully left my life.

I have in recent years focussed primarily on folk music. If I do say so myself, I am quite good. One of the most empowering experiences for me is when, standing before a crowd and beginning a song, I slowly perceive the normal bustle begin to die away until, by the time I finish, you can literally hear a pin drop. That is how I know I have done well. That something like a song has the power to affect people that way is something that I find fascinating. Whatever it is, it is old and powerful. And, as you can imagine, such a knack has come in quite useful in a field where giving talks and tours is expected.

Although I am primarily considered a scholar nowadays, there is more than a little of the bard still in me.

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Hello James,

I have read and

Hello James,

I have read and commented before your reports and I am still very fascinated of your background! I mean “Swordsman” and "Renaissance Festivals… ??? WOW!! I thought this wasn’t happening in reality!

I think your skillset is very interesting but I would like to ask you if you think that it is appreciated and welcomed in other fields apart from academic careers, if that interests you. I can clearly see that you are a big fan of history and its elements and you have a working background on that but how do you imagine your life in 10 years, would you like somehow to transmit all this knowledge to other people aswell? It’s not usual to see people so passionate about one specific (and in my opinion, complicated) subject that it would be a bit pity not to share all this experience with others…

Ah, a very good question indeed. And one that I have been puzzling over for some time.

I maintain that this stuff has uses well beyond academia. Decision makers used to keep wise and educated people around them as sages, advisors, and learned wazirs. I have been assured by some folks high up in the military that, to a certain extent, this is still the case. But it is clear that the degree to which these people are around, or are listened to if they are, has greatly diminished. I’d like to see that changed.

Transmission of this knowledge is ultimately the point. Nothing frustrates me more than people who horde knowledge for their own sakes. I have been teaching people, in one way or another, since I was 15. I hold it as probably my most important funciton. I learn things so that I can better share them with others.

10 years from now… hmm… I can see that going two ways. 1) I’m a curator/teacher/educator of some sort or another, and use my role to spread knowledge as best as I can. 2) I’m at Whitehall/No. 10 or some similar place giving the ‘long view’ analysis of world events to try to make sure the people in charge make informed decisions. Which one of those (or combination thereof) manifests depends entirely on which way the wind blows.

Time will tell.

 Nothing frustrates me more than people who horde knowledge for their own sakes.I can’t agree more …

I don’t know if you already have or thinking to create a blog where you can share all this experience of yours! I think it s a good and easy way to start creating awareness around your academic life and of course targeting a big ammount of people…

Stay in touch


Absolutely. I’m trying to do this with my website, Applied History ( Whenever something strikes me, I shut myself away for a day or so and bang out an article for the site. It’s feast and famine, really. I haven’t really added any articles for a few months (although I suspect that will be changing shortly).

As for my other skills (swordplay and singing), my outlet for these tends to be either work-related ( I’m a curator and an arms and armour specialist), or performing now and again at open mics or around fires with friends.

It’s a start.

Hobby or empowerment?

I managed to miss this! It is actually very interesting that, when asked about your defining skills, you mention swordsmanship and singing. From the report, however, it is not completely clear that these skills help you to build your life and your future: you depict them mainly as hobbies, it seems to me.

Am I wrong? Of course there would be nothing wrong with this, but it would be quite enlightening to find out that swordsmanship is actually “good for you” is some context other than the ones you mentioned. It could well be: when I played Reality Check myself, I was forced to stray quite far from the skills typically mentioned in CVs (mine are storytelling, divination and forgiveness: if this were Dungeon and Dragons, my character would be some kind of priestly type, I guess: not as cool as your warrior-bard).

The funny thing is, at different periods in my life both singing and swordplay have in fact been a major factor in my life, even a way of making a living at times.

I am an arms and armour specialist, with a particular research focus on the martial arts of Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I have worked for the Royal Armouries Museum in the UK for the past five years (and, should HM Government approve my visa and allow me back into the country, I will continue to do so). Even before that, my work as a swordsman on the Renaissance Faire circuit was literally how I made my living during those summers. I also sang at many of these events (a faire performer is expected to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades).

How it has been ‘good’ for me is quite a deep question, really. Have you ever read ‘The Book of Five Rings’ by Miyamoto Musashi? He was a swordsman in 17th century Japan who’s expertise made him one of the few people in Japan to bear the title kensei (sword saint). In addition to being one of the best manuals of swordplay to have ever been written, it can also be read metaphorically, strategies of combat being used as allegories for ways of navigating adversity in life: the ‘Way of the Sword’.

This is what I have taken away from my time as a swordsman. Singing is something I have yet to take to that level, except perhaps in very small circles. There’s still time yet.

Deep is exactly what I mean

I wanted to ask the question at two levels. One is obvious: hobby = unpaid, making a living = paid. But almost immediately it becomes not that obvious, because the link between being able to use a sword and being able to dust one is only indirect: when I was in the army, everybody used rifles and was able to perform basic disassemble-clean-assemble, but then you had the people in the armouries that could do higher level maintenance and repair. Being the best shot and being the best armourers were completely uncorrelated conditions.

The other level is the deep one, that you mention in the third paragraph. I think I get what you mean; I have not read Five Rings (I will certainly get it!), but I read a couple of times Sun Tzu’s Art of War that did a similar trick for me. I guess swordfighting is some fractal representation of war - though Sun Tzu does have to move, feed and pay his troops, and so he has to to get into something that resembles economics, which might not happen with swordfighting. Following your mission report, I asked myself if I had learnt deep skills from long-distance running (a recent hobby for me), but I think it is too early still for that.

Hey, we should perform a couple of songs together! What is your party piece? And in what key? I am a bit rusty, but I used to be a reasonably competent accompanist in folk. :slight_smile:

Very True. Forgive me, I should have been more specific.

I cannot agree more that knowing about swords and knowing how to use one are two very different things. I learned to fight first, at 15, and later in life cultivated my curatorial knowledge. I have found that they complement each other. Being able to handle actual medieval swords has allowed me to understand how they actually worked. And years of training in how to use them has deepened my perspective in studying them in a scholarly environment. In other words, being a swordsman has made me a better curator, and being a curator has made me a better swordsman.

Party piece… I honestly can’t say I ever really had one. :slight_smile: I’ve amassed a decent ‘morgue’ of songs over the years. I’d have to say my personal favourites are ‘Lagan Love’ and ‘The Night Visitor’s Song’. My future project is to learn two brilliant revolutionary songs by Dick Gaughan, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’. If you haven’t heard them, I highly recommend them.

I’ll look them up

Nothing to forgive :slight_smile:

I got hold of Five rings and am reading it. I have to say I don’t get much of it. “With a sticky feeling”? “Cross your long sword from below at the side to the Upper attitude”? I guess reading it is not really the point, maybe if you and I were reading it standing in a dojo, carrying swords and donning armor, we could probably try out stuff physically that makes sense with the wording, then use physicality and wording to get to meaning.

I’ll look the songs up, maybe you and I can improvise a mini-show (acoustic). Wanna give me the keys?

Ah, and I “met” on Edgeryders this Icelandic woman who is surprisingly like you: likes history and swordfighting! What were the odds? Go say hello, this seems like a firendhip waiting to happen!

Glad you’re finding the book interesting. It was the first fight manual I ever read, and thus has had a very lasting impact on me.

Granted, a decent amount of the text is practical, best-way-to-use-a-sword stuff. So not all of it has a metaphorical layer. A good deal of it does, however. You’ve happened upon one of the passages that I was first taught about by my first instructor: the ‘sticky feeling’.

At the practical level, this means to try to keep your blade as near to your opponents as possible as often as possible, as this allows you both to better control the other blade and be able to sense where it is going to go next.

At the ‘speculative’ level, the same approach when dealing with a conflict can have great benefits. Keep ‘contact’ with the thing so that it doesn’t get away from you, allowing you to monitor it closely and control it’s course/progress where possible.

The key passage, which is repeated over and over throughout the text, is (paraphrase) ‘this should be considered/meditated on long and carefully.’ The more you are familiar with the text, and the more you mull over it, the more bits of it will start to ‘click’ in unexpected areas of life after a while. Sounds faith-y, I know. But in my experience I have found it to work this way.

I cannot help you with regard to keys for songs. Although I have been singing for most of my life, I am almost completely musically illiterate when it comes to keys, notes, theory, etc. All I have learned I have learned by ear and by having perfect pitch. So if ever we get to jam, we’ll just have to wing it from there. But I look forward to such an occassion.

Yes, I have recently become aware of Asta as she too has managed to track me down on here. I suspect there will be many interesting conversations to come…

Hi! It’s an interesting skill set you have there!

I’m a history student, just undergrad but I think I love this subject enough to make something out of it for living. I like what you’ve done with applied history :slight_smile: Another strange fact, is that I indeed spent good deal of my adolesence fencing. Olympic fencing so a bit different than what you’ve described. I must admit that I find swords really interesting. Historically speaking and for play!

Well, I am not to sure how this edgeryders works, but hi :slight_smile:

Hello Asta, it’s me again! Well, we are collecting interesting stories and experiences in order to make a better future! Have you heard about Edgeryders conference in June at the Council of Europe?

You can see also the 3min video to introduce you the platform!

Wonderful to meet you. Always a joy to encounter a kindred spirit on here. I suspect we will have much to talk about.

You might be able to help me, technically. You’ve managed to ‘friend’ me on this network, but I can’t seem to find the way to do likewise to others. Any chance you could talk me through it so I can return the favour?

Talk to you soon! :slight_smile:

Speaking of skills

Hi James,

Hope things are well with you and summer’s been good :slight_smile:

This is to let you know about a research polict paper that came out on Education and learning, you might have seen calls for participation on our social media (@edgeryders on twitter).The paper (in a draft form now) will be part of the future Edgeryders Transition Handbook for policy makers and youth alike… it is based on posts here on the platform, yours included, and ends with related policy recommendations.

At the conference in Strasbourg, where by the way we missed you!, participants were keen on collaboratively working on the handbook, so now we’re trying to reach everybody who’s potentially interested according to topics…

Can you give it a bit of time, check it out and tell us what you think? It’s important that it not only reflects your points of view and others’ interested or having written about learning skills, but it also makes a contribution so that it helps us answer questions we’ve been having… especially on how new learning ways should be accommodated to reach more people in difficult transition. Does this make sense? Feel free to ping me if you have questionS!

Thanks and hope to hear from you soon!